Is atheism about Civil Rights?

Is atheism about Civil Rights? April 7, 2015

My latest for The Daily Beast went up yesterday. Is atheism about Civil Rights?

In part because of horrors that atheists experience in the rest of the world, and in part because of gross abuses experienced by other minorities in the West, I tend to roll my eyes at rhetoric often used by the public faces of atheism in America. My close friend Chris Stedman has catalogued a few examples: according to Bill Maher of HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher, atheism is the new gay marriage; Todd Stiefel, a prominent atheist activist and philanthropist, has said that atheism is “the next civil equality movement, just like women’s rights, LGBT rights and African-American Civil Rights”; and Austin Cline of About.com thinks that atheists are “hated more than gays.”

More recently, the president of American Atheists, Dave Silverman, told CNN that “[t]he fact is, we’re the most hated group in the country.” During a commercial specially prepared for the broadcast, Silverman boasted, “American Atheists is leading the charge for equality and the separation of religion and government.” Even on Facebook and Twitter, American Atheists and their representatives often refer to themselves as a civil-rights organization.

That atheists are so hated, let alone more than other beleaguered minority in the U.S., should strike any sensible person as absurd (and the empirical data to support it is scant). Based on the FBI’s statistics on hate crimes, gay men in America are victims of about 13 percent of hate crimes involving a single bias, but only constitute about 2 percent of the population. Contrast that with atheists, who also make up around 2 percent of the population (sometimes more, depending on who asks and how), yet are victims of less than a fraction of 1 percent of single-bias hate crimes. A gay man in America is orders of magnitude more likely to experience hatred than an atheist.

The issue of civil rights and civil equality, though, is more complicated.

I spoke with Danielle Muscato, the PR Director for American Atheists and Eugene Volokh, a law professor at UCLA.

No one seems to agree on a solid definition of what exactly a civil right’s organization is or does, but issues like suffrage, the Selma to Montgomery march, gay marriage, and prison reform come to mind—not atheism. Danielle Muscato, the public relations director for American Atheists, expanded on the issue via email. “Atheists are routinely demonized (literally!) by the general public,” she wrote. “We face discrimination in everything from employment to custody cases to family relationships to representation in politics.”

Muscato went on, “There are other organizations that focus on separation of religion and government, but we are the premier organization fighting for the de-stigmatization of atheists specifically, normalizing the identify of ‘atheist,’ fighting legal cases, appearing in the media to present the atheist perspective on everything from religious scandals and religious violence to religion and LGBTQ rights, evolution vs. creation in public school science classes, religion and access to birth control and abortion, and much more.”

While it’s a stretch to suggest that American Atheists represent the atheist perspective—they skew strongly anti-religious and our best estimate suggests only 1 in 7 atheists in America agrees—there are nonetheless some legitimate legal activism worth doing. Muscato told me of a recent case American Atheists tried in Kentucky, where a state law required a government employee to affirm the existence of God (they won the original case, but the ruling was later overturned in an appeal because American Atheists lacked standing).

Eugene Volokh, a professor at UCLA who specializes in free speech law and religious freedom, has an interesting perspective on the topic. “There’s no definition of what a civil rights organization is,” he told me. “A lot depends on whether one agrees with their view of civil rights, but there are several things that various atheist groups tend to object to.”

First, Volokh discusses genuine instances where the law discriminates against atheists—some states prefer religious parents in custody hearings, the Navy does not allow Humanist chaplains, and so on. Of this type of activism, he says “it’s a hard thing to get involved in because a lot of these cases just bubble up in state court and nobody notices them.”

Second, Volokh discusses issues where the Establishment Clause may be violated—“under God” in our pledge, crosses on the land and so on. “I don’t think it has to do with individual rights so much as it does supposed constraints on government power more generally,” Volokh told me. “But certainly some people think the Establishment Clause secures an individual right not to be confronted with religious imagery put up by the government.” I’m inclined to agree that it’s strange to classify this under Civil Rights, though I know American Atheists would disagree. From their 9/11 Cross lawsuit, where they sued to fight the presence of a memorial cross in the 9/11 Museum. This cross, which they call “repugnant to the Constitution,” caused the plaintiffs:

dyspepsia, symptoms of depression, headaches, anxiety, and mental pain and anguish from the knowledge that they are made to feel officially excluded from the ranks of citizens who were directly injured by the 9/11 attack and the lack of acknowledgement of the more than 1,000 nonChristian individuals who were killed at the World Trade Center.

Third, Volokh discusses issues involving the public perception of atheism. Many Americans judge atheists somewhat coldly and wouldn’t vote for an atheist president. Of this, Volokh says, “Now, that’s not a matter of the Constitution, because in the Constitution, people are free to vote as they like. But it is a matter of societal discrimination.”

The issues, then—insofar as they are issues at all—seem extremely small-stakes. Volokh convinced me, though, that whether an issue is about Civil Rights doesn’t necessarily hinge on how big it is.

So is atheism about Civil Rights? I guess? in some instances? technically? Certainly not to the same magnitude and degree of other Civil Rights struggles at the forefront of our minds, and I think very little that the atheist movement is involved in falls under the Civil Rights umbrella.

I suspect, though, that invoking the language of Civil Rights might do more harm than good, just because of the unflattering comparisons it brings to mind. It seems like we wouldn’t want  to compare minor battles in state court to fighting Jim Crow laws.

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